Escape to Philadelphia

Living in a small town has its moments.

Some might quibble with my characterization of Columbia as a small town—after all, we’re media-savvy enough to have two daily newspapers, urban enough to have our own stand-alone corner store (fittingly called “the no-gas”) and prosperous enough to be flanked by Walmarts on all four sides. But for the most part, we lack the traffic, pollution, crime and supervillainry that plague a larger city like Chicago, St. Louis or Gotham. And personally, I’m glad for the lack of distractions. It’s easy to maintain a rigorous training schedule while focusing on one’s studies here. It’s also easy to spend warm summer nights swinging idly on a porch swing, sipping lemonade and waiting for fresh-baked bread to rise. Or winter nights at home with a pocketknife, whittling along to the radio adventures of Perry Mason while a watchful tabby monitors the fire.

Life is just so simple. You can ride your bike across town in 20 minutes, lock it up with a series of cobwebs and leave it for a month or two. Or a year, in the case of the intricately webbed BMX leaning against my apartment. To those who argue that a population of 100,000 disqualifies Columbia as a small town, let me direct your attention to this mystery Mongoose as Exhibit A. If you can leave a perfectly functional bike alone in the elements for more than seven days without it being stolen, dismantled or repurposed as hippie garden art, you live in a small town. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with that.

But sometimes you have to escape to the bright lights and multiple-story buildings of a real city. A city with all-new people, all-new sights, all-new running routes and all-new liberty bells. A city of brotherly love, even. I speak, of course, of the soft-pretzel paradise that is Philadelphia.

I spent some of my time in Philadelphia running, and since this is ostensibly a running blog, I would be remiss if I didn’t address said running adventures to the handful of readers who run. There’s nothing like running in a new city when you’re completely sick of your tiny hometown. In Columbia, I trudge the same basic route day after day—headphones blaring, bored out of my mind, pretending I’m the shape-shifting T-1000 from Terminator 2 just to feel alive. But put me in a new town, and I’m Billy from Family Circus—gleefully tracing a dashed line around the corner, through the alley, in and out of the bike shop, over the river and YES, up the stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

From West Philly, where I was staying with friends, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art was a mere three miles. One might think that the novelty of pumping both fists in the air at the top of the steps, Rocky-style, would wear off after the first or second time. One would be woefully wrong. Although the icy winds prevented stopping for an extended Rocky role-playing sesh, just humming a few bars of “Gonna Fly Now” and taking in the cityscape was enough to make me feel like a champion. I’ve had an obsession with Rocky since I first started running and immediately preferred to visualize myself as a gritty urban hero instead of some Get-in-Shape-Girl fitness nut. Now I don’t care one way or another, but it used to rankle me that running didn’t enjoy the same tough-guy status that biking did. Rocky was an island of underdog cool in a sea of uncertainty and periwinkle wicking wear.

Most of my time in Philly was not spent running or air-boxing in grey sweats, however. Most of my time was spent hanging out with friends, going to Harry Potter-themed potlucks, meeting new people, dancing at parties and mysteriously watching select scenes from Labyrinth on repeat (not my idea). I also saw my first Gorilla Biscuits cover-band show, which seems like the kind of momentous occasion that should have occurred 14 years ago, at the height of my ‘80s youth-crew obsession. When I was a teen, I thought my parents were kind of sad for dragging me to see the Rolling Stones IMAX concert in Branson, Mo. Now that I’m old myself, though, I totally get it. Once you pass 30 and settle down with a family and/or tabby, all you really want out of live music is to relive the power jams of your youth. For my parents, that’s an odd mixture of ‘70s rock and Irish music. As for me, I’ll probably never get over the earnest temperance of a Youth of Today or a Chain of Strength. Yet I pine for lyrics that express other themes than “betrayal.” It’s really a conundrum.

Anyway, out of everything that happened in Philly, the most critical thing was the discovery of a crucial divide between the liberal East Coast and the sensible, God-fearing heartland. Out east, POPCORN TINS ARE DIVIDED INTO FOUR SECTIONS. Seriously. I know it’s uncomfortable, but let that sink in for a minute.

Ahem. Tinned popcorn is my favorite food, and when I first heard talk of this four-way abomination, I took it as a slap in the face to the Holy Trinity of butter, caramel and cheese. This holiday hat trick has long formed a sacred trifecta of joy, abundance and gastrointestinal apocalypse for me. I get my twice-yearly tin from Topsy’s, where the formula was practically etched into a stone tablet on Mount Sinai. But suddenly I’m asked to contend with flavors like olive oil, white cheddar and kettle? First off, how do those mamby-pamby East Coasters even know about kettle corn? Kettle corn is something to be carried in a plastic rucksack around the Missouri State Fair—not a mere stopover on the way to caramel. And “olive oil”? Heresy, pure flavorless heresy.

Where once my two best friends and I argued for hours over which of us is which flavor in the friendship (final decision: J is butter, Dawn is cheese and I’m caramel) or which flavor represents each film in the Jurassic Park trilogy (1: butter, 2: cheese, 3: caramel), or which flavor represents each deity in the ACTUAL Holy Trinity (God: butter, Jesus: caramel, Holy Ghost: cheese) or which flavor is which brand of bike components (Shimano: butter, Campagnolo: caramel, SRAM: cheese)… NOW I don’t even know what any of those things mean anymore. Four choices? Olive oil? Are you serious? Why not Acai Berry or Organic Basil Pesto??

Philadelphia, your tastes are a little too grand for me. I’m headed home. Columbia might be small, and it might be the boring, old butter to your sweet, crunchy caramel. But at least we like our popcorn in threes, our cheddar neon orange and our historical monuments mercifully un-cracked.